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Wednesday, July 21, 2010 - 11:30am

Gulf States Frustrated At Commercial Fishing Ban

Though the leaking oil well in the Gulf of Mexico has been capped for close to a week, the commercial fishing industry there remains shut down. Federal regulators say they are not ready to certify that seafood caught in the region is safe to eat.

Local officials are waging a campaign to reopen much of the area, saying the fish are safe. But some fishermen say they have already lost much of the season to the spill.

In Louisiana, Gov. Bobby Jindal recently decided to open recreational fishing. But he can't do that same for the state's commercial fishermen without approval from the Food and Drug Administration.

On a recent trip to a seafood distributor outside New Orleans, Jindal surrounded himself with representatives of the state fishing industry, saying the state's 12,260 licensed fishermen are linchpins for the regional economy. "And the reality is that we know these thousands of licenses support other industries -- like our grocery businesses, our restaurants, our icehouses, our trucking industries, our marinas, our ports, and many other related industries as well," Jindal said.

Jindal, a Republican, depicted Louisiana as the victim of a ham-handed federal response to the emergency, saying that despite months of testing, inspectors have not found any tainted fish.

The FDA, Jindal complained, is moving much too slowly, amid a backlog of fish awaiting testing.

"What we're saying is they should cut through these backlogs as quickly as possible," Jindal said.

The backlog Jindal is talking about consists of fish caught around the Gulf that go through a careful testing process, according to federal standards. Jindal says that whether or not the cap on the well is successful, testing should be sped up so the commercial fishing ban in most Gulf waters can be lifted.

Alabama and Mississippi are making the same argument and wondering what is taking so long. Livelihoods are at stake, they argue. Sure, some waters should remain closed, the say, but most are clear of oil and full of clean Gulf seafood.

The FDA was quietly irked that Louisiana lifted the recreational ban. Louisiana lifted the ban on recreational fishing without consulting the FDA, and the agency says it cannot promise that fish caught by sport fishermen is safe to eat. FDA spokeswoman Meghan Scott says all the Gulf states had agreed to a series of steps before reopening.

"A critical first step in that is ensuring that the water is clear enough for the fish to be taken from before it's tested," Scott says.

And with millions of gallons of oil still drifting around the Gulf, the FDA says, it's not ready to give the OK for more areas to be open. And that leaves thousands of fishermen on hold.

A Lost Season

In New Orleans East, there's a beautiful green bayou that runs into Lake Ponchartrain. That's where fisherman Peter Gerica lives, in a house he rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina destroyed his old one.

Gerica stands sweating in the July heat, looking at the 29-foot shrimp boat he usually uses to support himself. He lost a bigger boat in the storm. Now, he can't crab, fish or catch shrimp, so he sends his wife to sell frozen seafood he still has on hand.

Gerica says that many of his fisherman friends are have signed on to help BP with clean up and are making good money. He says they probably won't give up their jobs with BP, even if fishing reopens. But Gerica says he has no desire to work for BP, and his health won't permit it anyway.

He is stubbornly hanging on to fishing the way he says he held onto the trees that sheltered his family through Katrina, as the waters rose. He has received $10,000 in compensation from BP. But he says that won't make him whole.

"But you gotta remember, I lost a season -- that was $30,000 in my occupation. When we lose a shrimp season, the shrimp season never comes back," Gerica says.

Gerica concedes it would be a disaster if fishing was reopened too early and someone ended up with oily seafood. So, he will wait as long as he has to. It almost seems that his ability to hang on through the storm has convinced him he can stick it out through anything.

The FDA says it hopes to give the OK to reopen Gulf waters to commercial fishing as soon as possible. But the agency wont give a timeline. [Copyright 2010 National Public Radio]